Op-Ed: Is the alliance with the ANC and SACP the root cause of the problems in Cosatu?
Only if the alliance is seen to be rising above factionalism and attending to the real needs of its core constituencies can it hope to remain something workers support. The alliance cannot be something that comes into being at election time or when a crisis emerges that has to be addressed to avoid a strike. It has to have content and meaning. By SILUMKO NONDWANGU, TEBELLO MOKOENA, RICHARD JEWISON and MOLEFINYANE PHERA.
In his analysis of the Cosatu strike (Cosatu : the best days behind it) on 27 September, Stephen Grootes argues that the central cause of Cosatu’s problems is the alliance it has with the ANC and SACP. It is a well-argued piece (as are many of his articles on the current state of our democracy) and much of the detail cannot be contested. However, the article makes some serious errors that could potentially lead to incorrect conclusions on the way forward.
It is important to emphasise that we come from a position of being deeply unhappy about both the current focus and capacity of the trade union movement. At a time when there is a desperate need for a strong civil society, and organised labour movement in particular, both civil society and the trade unions are in a poor state and unable to mobilise society and provide a counterbalance to the abuse of state power we are experiencing. The union movement is split, and the unedifying experience of listening to Zwelinzima Vavi and Sdumo Dlamini attacking each other hours before workers took to the streets was something only the enemies of the working class would applaud.
But to rectify this situation the analysis of the causes needs to be correctly understood. The only possibility of resolving current difficulties is on the basis of a sound analysis of the problems and how we came to where we are today.
The first point that needs to be made is that the trade unions need a political voice. The world over, trade union formations have attempted to improve the lives of workers through collective bargaining and have always found it difficult to do that without a political strategy. In the UK, the trade unions formed the Labour Party for that purpose. In South Africa the challenges of the workers were viewed as being resolved by bargaining (through Cosatu), through achieving the vote and democracy (via the ANC), and understanding the limitations of both collective bargaining and legislating change within a capitalist system – the achievement of socialism (through the SACP).
Now we can reflect on the difficulties workers have experienced in being in an alliance with the UK Labour Party and we could do the same for the SA alliance. The drawbacks are acknowledged. But whether worker formations are currently in such arrangements or outside of them, the fact is that they do need a political voice and they will generally develop some form of alliance to achieve their political goals. Political goals include such things as the minimum wage, labour legislation, health and safety, pensions and of course access to decent education and health services. So those arguing against the current alliance must advise workers as to how they can best achieve their aspirations, because experience tells them that they will not achieve these by focusing on bargaining with employers. Legislative change is needed to improve the lot of workers and this cannot be achieved without a political voice.
One particularly misleading piece of analysis is the one that says if the ANC is in government and is the employer, then the union is “in bed with its members’ bosses”, that “Cosatu and the ANC have different interests and aims” and that “the two simply cannot be reconciled”. This is very simplistic. You could write a long list of contradictions that exist in the world trade unions have to work in. Unions organise workers who elect shop stewards, who then get promoted and become managers, retaining their membership – that is a difficult one. Union members are given shares in companies and then find that their so-called ownership stake does nothing to help them gain better income or job security. How can a company that you have shares in treat you badly? Even worse if the union investment company has shares. These are just two examples (in addition to having your ally as an employer). The contradictions are many.
The debate about whether these contradictions are reconcilable is a semantic one. You will get very frustrated if you try to align the different interests and goals. Of course the ANC has a different agenda to that of organised labour. They come together precisely because they have different agendas and work in different spheres and are able to find mutual interests that they work on together. There will inevitably be conflict and contestation. That is normal. The relationship between workers and employers (public or private) is both a collaborative and a conflictual one. In the private sector it is in the interests of workers that their company succeeds but at the same time there is contestation over who benefits from that success.
The fact of the matter is that such contradictions exist and need to be managed. It is not simple, and mistakes do get made. The most painful mistakes are when workers “kill the goose that lays the golden egg” where the contestation over wages results in a company closing or replacing workers with computerised machines. Managing that contradiction is harder for private sector unions than managing a situation where your political ally is your employer.
Part of the trade union approach to managing these issues is education of shop stewards and office-bearers. In recent years there has been neglect of that and this weakness is evident in the unions making an increasing number of errors. That is the crucial lesson for the unions, that to further the interests of workers in this complex, global, contradictory world, you need highly skilled and capable leaders, organisers and negotiators. Trade union education must be prioritised if the unions are to be influential both in the industrial and political sphere. It is a waste of time trying to reconcile the contradictions within capitalist economies; the challenge is to manage them and make gains in spite of the problems.
The second point is that the alliance cannot be simplistically blamed for the current problems. When you examine carefully what has weakened the trade unions it is not so much being members of the alliance, but rather their embroilment in internal ANC and SACP factional battles. It is not so much that the federation has failed to manage the many contradictions that the alliance naturally brings with it, but rather that factionalism – which has caused so much damage to the ANC – has been brought into the trade union movement.
Factions are very damaging to democracy because decisions are taken outside of democratic structures and then imposed on the organisation. You end up supporting what individuals say because of the faction they represent, not whether they are saying anything useful. At the height of a factional battle you might see the sky as blue but if people representing the faction you have given your support to say it is green, that is the colour it must be. Reasoned debate goes out of the window. The anti-Mbeki/pro-Zuma faction in the ANC and SACP made their agenda Cosatu’s agenda, without any consideration of the damage that it would do. Vavi himself, along with a number of other senior leaders of the SACP and Cosatu unions, was to a great extent responsible for this. His famous “tsunami” is still wreaking havoc today, 12 years on.
The tsunami tore through the democracy of the trade unions and replaced it with decision-making processes that delivered to the faction. Vavi and Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu results from the processes that they were responsible for. Although Vavi has apologised for his misguided support for Zuma, he has not taken responsibility for the more damaging role he played in allowing the federation to be ripped apart by factionalism. Eventually he became a victim of that factionalism that he himself created.
It is notable that those responsible for Vavi and Numsa’s expulsion still defend their role, even though they no longer support the Zuma faction. At the time when Vavi was changing his mind about Zuma, the rest of the Cosatu leadership still supported him – this at a time when he was doing all the things they condemn him for now. Vavi was just a few years in advance of the people who expelled him in coming to the conclusion that Zuma was leading the ANC, the alliance and the country in the wrong direction. When the leadership of Cosatu and the SACP drove a wedge between the Cosatu unions and Numsa they did so not because Numsa was anti-ANC (they had always been somewhat sceptical of the ANC) but rather because they were so openly hostile to the Zuma-led ANC and what it was turning into. But even though those same leaders have changed their minds about who should lead the ANC, they are not reflecting on the impact of factionalism.
Most of the problems faced by the trade unions, including their diversion from focusing on member interests and splitting in the way they have, is down to bringing ANC and SACP factional battles into the trade unions. Until that issue is understood and addressed the problems will persist. The fact that the trade unions are now supporting Cyril Ramaphosa for president of the ANC may seem progressive compared with their previous support for Zuma, but the problem is that it remains factional in nature. The drive to get all unions to support Ramaphosa will be equally divisive and damaging in some provinces as the previous drive to deliver for Zuma. And after Ramaphosa? Is this to be a permanent feature of the trade unions? Is it possible to build unity on that basis? It seems self-evident that factionalism will further divide workers, so surely that is what must end, not the relationship that exists between the ANC and the unions.
The future of Cosatu in the alliance does not only lie in the recognition that aligning itself with factionalism in the ANC and SACP is politically myopic and wrong. There will need to be work done on the reconfiguration of the alliance in such a way that it becomes much more focused on the needs and aspirations of workers and the poor and disadvantaged. Only if the alliance is seen to be rising above factionalism and attending to the real needs of its core constituencies can it hope to remain as something that workers support. The alliance cannot be something that comes into being at election time or when a crisis emerges that has to be addressed to avoid a strike. It has to have content and meaning.
The importance of the above is not to write history or to argue that the alliance is necessarily a good or bad thing. Vavi himself was arguing, when he was still in Cosatu, that support for the ANC should not be unconditional. Many supported that view and for many years the unions were some of the most sophisticated critics of ANC economic policy (often in advance of the SACP on issues such as GEAR). The unions were in many ways the “critical friends” that the ANC needed to self-rectify when they got things wrong. The alliance cannot be based on short-term gains or losses. Sometimes an alliance will be more productive than at others and right now is a bit of a low point. It could transpire that the damage done in recent years does result in the alliance breaking up, and that would not necessarily be a bad thing. The more important issue is how to rebuild a strong and united trade union movement and this can only be done if the correct lessons are learned. The criteria for determining whether the alliance should continue is whether it contributes to, or undermines, the ability of unions to further their members’ interests, not ideology or – in our view false – analyses about irreconcilable conflicts of interest.
It is probably too early to start a discussion on how to rebuild the unity that existed in Cosatu, or to build a wider unity that includes Fedusa and others. The battles informing the split are still raging and the bitterness is all-consuming. The smoke from the fire has to clear first.
Perhaps the damage done needs to be more clearly understood by workers – who are confused by the analysis being put forward by people they trust, but whose gut reaction is likely to be for unity both within the working class and within the progressive political formations they look to for support. Workers will most likely remain in some form of alliance with the ANC or its successor body, but hopefully they will take a decision never again to be dragged into factional battles. Their role should be to condemn factionalism and refuse to tolerate it. Factionalism is anti-democratic and stands in the way of worker aspirations, whether it occurs inside the trade unions or the political parties that purport to represent the interest of workers. Factionalism is to blame for the current problems – not the alliance itself. DM
Silumko Nondwangu is a former General Secretary of Numsa; Tebello Mokoena, Richard Jewison, Molefinyana Phera are former officials of Nehawu.
Photo: Forgive us, Three Tenors.